Restaurant boom: Is Italian Village the next dining hotspot?

Anthony Dominic, Crave
Seventh Son Brewing Co.

It's going to be the next Short North." We've heard this prophetic broad-brush before. A sleek restaurant opens in an old neighborhood, and heralds start singing songs of renaissance. It's never, of course, that simple. It took decades for the Short North to transform into a bustling strip.

Take a drive up Fourth Street or down Summit Street, between the Interstate 670 overpass and Fifth Avenue, and you'll sense it: Change is palpable in Italian Village. You can see it in the 2-acre Italian Village Urban Farm sprouting on the once-blighted lot across from the former Wonder Bread factory. In the sleek, staggered facade of the Jeffrey Park mixed-use development. In the lines snaking out the door and around Cravings Carryout Cafe and Fox in the Snow Cafe. And on the crowded Seventh Son Brewing Co. patio on a weekend night, the smell of hops and barbecue lingering in the air.

The question is clear: Is the neighborhood Columbus' next dining hotspot?

Ali Alshahal is optimistic. In recent years, Alshahal and his A&R Creative Group have been among the neighborhood's biggest investors, with Cafe del Mondo, the Columbus Growing Collective (responsible for the neighborhood's urban farm), The Market Italian Village and, later this year, Hoof Hearted Brewery & Kitchen inside Jeffrey Park. Even A&R's headquarters, a rehabbed law office, is on Summit Street.

Neighborhood residents account for 70 percent of the customer base at A&R's Italian Village businesses, Alshahal says, which reflects his initial vision for the concepts. "We want [The Market] to be where our neighbors come for milk, bread and cappuccino," he says. "I don't see the infrastructure right now for the alternative, for commercial companies. The people of Italian Village are not going to support a commercialized movement that does not understand the dynamics of Italian Village."

Zach James, owner of Paddy Wagon food truck, echoes Alshahal's sentiment in regard to opening satellite kitchen Jailhouse Rock inside Little Rock Bar last year. Paddy Wagon had been a Little Rock staple since the bar's opening, but James was still cautious with the expansion.

"Little Rock is a real bar with a great crowd," he says. "We couldn't just show up and start forcing our food. [Jailhouse Rock] had to be natural and organic, and we spent a lot of time with [owner] Quinn Fallon making sure the entire aesthetic made sense."

The influence of residents largely distinguishes Italian Village from the Short North and even the Arena District, but this factor hasn't always been a safety net for neighborhood business owners. Michelle Hill, the 16-year owner of St. James Tavern, remembers when her Fourth Street dive was known to regulars as "the neighborhood bar without a neighborhood." It wasn't until the aughts when she noticed a shift to more local customers, as more rental properties became available in the neighborhood.

"Frankly, Fourth Street has developed slower and more bizarrely than I expected," Hill says. "I expected it would have been more organic over 15 years instead of everyone jumping in at the same time in the last three years. The only reason, I worry, is there's not an inch left on High Street, so, 'OK-we have to go here now.' "

Collin Castore had a hunch Italian Village might take off, but this wasn't what sold him on the neighborhood. The former Bodega owner drove by an old mechanics garage on Fourth Street almost daily for years before converting it into Seventh Son.

"I always saw the brewery as more of a destination spot off the beaten path," he says. "That was the nice thing about it."

Since the Columbus Ale Trail's Brew Books launched earlier this year-an initiative by several partners including the Ohio Craft Brewers Association and Experience Columbus to map Columbus' breweries-Castore has seen a boost in business for Seventh Son. The idea of traveling from brewery to brewery and checking off boxes in the book, he says, is proving to be as much of a draw as the beer itself. He's eager to welcome a second brewery into the neighborhood by the way of the Hoof Hearted brewpub, A&R's collaboration with the namesake Morengo-based brewery.

"In the book, Wolf's Ridge, Elevator, North High and us have been pre-named 'Brewer's Row,' and Hoof Hearted will fit right into that," he says. "It will be great to have us all clustered together because people can say, 'Oh, I'm going to hit all of these breweries together.' It'll mean there's another reason for people to come to the Village."

Castore does worry about skyrocketing costs for business owners and the possibility the neighborhood may "price itself out" similarly to the Short North. "It's a matter of [what kind of businesses] move in, and if the neighborhood maintains a mix of both residential and rental properties," he says.

Alshahal is attracted to the neighborhood because entrepreneurs like he and Castore are in a position to shape its "blank canvas." "It's a mix of passionate young professionals and a little bit of that older, long-haul community that's been here and still absolutely love it," Alshahal says.

Since 2012, Hill has noticed some regulars drift out of St. James, replaced by newer, younger faces. She always welcomes new business but is sentimental about the change.

"There are condos at First [Avenue] and Summit starting at $600,000," she says. "You would have been lucky to get $200,000 for them five years ago. It makes me wonder, these people moving in, will they even like my bar?"

Only the addition of more independently owned businesses by entrepreneurs such as Castore and Fallon of Little Rock, Hill says, will ensure the neighborhood's integrity over the next decade.

"I just don't want to see it turn into an entertainment district like the Arena District, Park Street, and remain more of a neighborhood like Clintonville or something," she says. "I'm just hoping for the best, hoping our casual neighborhood bar will be embraced in the way it was 10 years ago."